The present desk is not only an outstanding example of cabinet-making during the late Louis XVI period, but it is also an important historic object that is related to both the history of French-American diplomatic relations and the beginnings of French furniture collecting in the United States. With its beautifully figured mahogany, exquisite ormolu mounts and impeccable construction, this cylinder desk must have been manufactured by one of the leading Parisian ébénistes in the late 1780s, including Jean-Henri Riesener or one of his compatriots such as Jean-Ferdinand Schwerdfeger and François-Ignace Papst. The beauty of this bureau is matched only by its fascinating history and importance as it is among the first pieces of luxurious furnishings that made it to the United States from France. This desk was brought to New York in 1793 by Gouverneur Morris, who was the head of the diplomatic corps and served as ambassador at the French court. This lot was among a number of pieces Morris purchased in France, many of which were abandoned by or confiscated from members of the aristocracy by the revolutionary government, while others were sold from the royal garde meuble, include those offered at the Versailles sales in 1793-94. Morris also attended auctions in London to obtain works for this newly-formed collection, which included not only furniture from the most important French makers but also tapestries and porcelain, among others. On 5 March 1792, Morris notes in his diary: "This Morning I go to the Auction of the late Marquis de la Luzerne," who had previously been the French ambassador to England and whose property was sold there after his death. Between April and July 1792, Morris embarked on another shopping spree and it has been suggested that the present bureau was purchased during that period, see L. Schreider III, ‘Gouverneur Morris, Connoisseur of French Art’, Apollo, June 1971, p. 478. Upon his return to his estate of Morrisania in the Bronx, Morris installed his new acquisitions and created a particularly luxurious home that was famous for its beauty and lavishness at the time. In fact, one visitor in 1804 described Morris and his house as having “great sociability and mirth added to splendor in the extreme ... he lives literally like a nobleman.” After his death in 1816, Morris’s splendid furniture remained at Morrisania with his descendants until the house was destroyed in 1905.
Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816) was by birth a member of the Colonial aristocracy of New York. His father, Lewis Morris II (1698-1762) was Lord of the Manor of Morrisania, one of the only six New York estates to be possessed of manorial rights. His half-brother, Lewis Morris III (1726-1798), was New York signatory of the Declaration of Independence. As for Morris himself, he well represented the type of gentry from whom so many of the American Revolutionary leaders came. At the Continental Congress in 1777-79 he enthusiastically supported George Washington. In 1787, Morris was chosen as delegate to the Continental Convention assembled in Philadelphia to frame what was to become the Constitution of the United States of America. In December 1788, Morris sailed to France to manage contracts with the Farmers-General. In 1790, he was unofficially appointed to act for President Washington concerning the American war debt for France. In 1792, he was appointed by Washington to succeed Thomas Jefferson as Minister to the Court of Louis XVI, keeping his appointment until 2 October 1784, being the only member of the diplomatic corps to ride out the Terror. While Morris’s diplomatic position in Paris was officially neutral, privately he sided with the monarchy that had supported the American Revolution and conceived a bold, yet unavailing attempt for Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette to escape from Paris. Later, Morris was to save Lafayette’s wife from the guillotine. Morris remained in Paris until the spring of 1793, withdrawing to his country house near Sainport until October 1794, and thence to the continent with numerous visits to London. He returned to New York in 1798, moving in 1800 into Morrisania, his newly built house, to live amongst his books bought in Paris and London, his French wines and what was almost certainly the first French Royal furniture to be seen in New York.